Cycling shorts: The latest fashion trend for men

Cycling shorts are the latest fashion trend for men. But are men really going to wear them away from their bikes, asks Paul McLauchlan

When the 2019 Tour de France kicks off today in Brussels before commencing a three-week length journey across France, one of the defining features will not only be the stamina and endurance of the participating cyclists but the individual team costumes that the cyclists will sport each day.

Identifying each team, the Lycra costume is synonymous with cycling but, in 2019, it is connected with even more. Enter cycling shorts as a men’s fashion trend. Its beginnings could be charted back in June 2017 when British designer Martine Rose introduced elevated performance wear, commonly known as athleisure, in her collection at London Fashion Week Men’s. Styled with oversized shirts and parkas, the branded cycling shorts, in all their figure-hugging glory, would soon underscore many of the ensuing trend reports in the next twenty-four months.

The history of the cycling short goes back to the 1970s, when professional rider Toni Maier-Moussa, along with his wife Eliane, an apparel and textile technician, and Hans Hess, a Swiss producer of downhill ski racing suits, created one of the first Lycra skinsuits.

Later, this would become Lycra bike shorts we know today. To this day, Maier-Moussa’s company Assos continues to sell cutting-edge cycling apparel. Years later, they’re now seemingly fashionable to wear off the bike.

A creation by CMMN SWDN at the men’s spring/summer 2020 collection. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty
A creation by CMMN SWDN at the men’s spring/summer 2020 collection. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty

Kim Kardashian West, entrepreneur, influencer, and law student, joined in on the moment too, wearing custom-made Yeezy shorts, designed by her husband, Kanye West. Of course, the Kardashian effect was lasting.

She has been a leading force in pushing bike shorts as a veritable wardrobe staple. Others followed suit, from designers who feature them in their collections and young women around the globe have transformed them into a music festival-ready garment.

But how does it figure for men? In the past number of years, perhaps in the advent of Martine Rose’s seminal menswear show, the tight Lycra shorts, effectively high-performance-wear, have entered the lexicon of men’s fashion.

There’s Oakley, with its motocross background, partnering with one of the buzziest designers of the moment, Samuel Ross, creative director at A-COLD-WALL*, on a line of sportswear. Or Nike, who have partnered with Matthew Williams to produce a dynamic line of training apparel. Cycling, theoretically, is fair game in fashion design.

For practical use, cycling shorts were invented for comfort, support, and aerodynamics in a sport which features long distances and laborious effort. For your day to day, one could adopt them for the demanding constancy of our busy lives. In our fast-paced and increasingly mindful world, affording oneself the luxury of comfort is never a bad idea.

However, are cycling shorts best kept to the likes of Nicholas Roche and Eddie Dunbar, the Irish cyclists who will take on the 21 legs of the Tour de France in the coming weeks, vying for the final maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, the final individual general classification which determines the winner of the Tour de France?

Jet McDonald, author of Mind is the Ride - a Journey Through Cycling and Philosophy (published by Unbound), argues ‘I think this shows how cycling is widening its appeal. The MAMIL, or Middle Aged Man in Lycra, has to share his cycling space with much younger or older riders, men and women of all colours and backgrounds, who want to express their identity in different ways, on and off the bike.’ (McDonald’s recently-published book chronicles the yearlong physical and philosophical journey of his four thousand mile cycle from Bristol to India.)

McDonald attributes this latest development in the world of fashion to the appealing nature of cycling today. ‘Essentially, it is now cool to be a cyclist, so why shouldn’t this new found pride in all things cycling, its precious diversity, be expressed in fashion?’ he said. ‘There is a whole fashion industry built around casual cycling clothing for men and women and it was only a matter of time before these outer layers were stripped off so Lycra could have its moment in the sun.’

Some brands have taken to elevating cycling apparel to the next frontier. In essence, labels such as Rapha, Vulpine, and Café du Cycliste have transformed sports garments into full-fledged lifestyle brands. Rapha is a high-end cycling apparel brand with a focus on performance-wear, imbuing the athletic world with an air of luxury.

Vulpine and Café du Cycliste capitalise on the cycling lifestyle, transporting their customers into a luxurious world in which the pleasure of cycling and the associated apparel are married -- both rely on the warmth of their marketing in an attempt to detach from the often sanitised experience of e-commerce.

The Spring/Summer 2020 menswear shows which concluded a few weeks ago gave us our first insight into how we’ll be dressing for the new decade. With the Olympic Games set to take place in Tokyo, Japan, in July 2020, it became clear that the dynamism of athleisure will be front and centre for the decade’s debut.

In Milan, the Emporio Armani show paid homage to the upcoming Summer Olympics. The show was closed by 20 Olympians and nine Paralympians sporting EA7 Emporio Armani uniforms. ‘I always find it stimulating to look for new solutions for athletes’ uniforms, which must be stylishly elegant, yet also practical to use,’ said Giorgio Armani in a post-show statement.

After all, the purpose of modern fashion is to provide pragmatic and stylish solutions to adapt to the moment in time. The competing cyclists will debut their costumes next summer.

In London, Kiko Kostadinov responded to ‘the rush and wait of our post-everything existence.’ The Bulgarian designer delivered a range of checkerboard print cycling shorts in optimistic sherbet-colours. Will a daringly optimistic colour palette and an even more daring garment lead to an auspicious start to the 20s?

‘Twenty years ago I would never have imagined that my stinky cycling shorts, turned inside out and drying on a washing line in a tent, effectively hidden away, might one day be gracing the catwalks,’ said McDonald.

Not everyone will jump on board with the trend, of course. For example, cycling journalist Luke Maguire isn’t convinced.

He told the Irish Examiner, ‘‘Cycling shorts are designed for practicality more than anything. The tight elasticated fabric helps to minimise chafing that inevitably occurs when cycling long distances. Good cycling shorts are quite expensive—upwards of €150—so unless the shorts are high quality they can be agitating and uncomfortable when off the bike.’

‘Personally, after a long training ride I want to get out of my shorts as soon as possible, so the idea of changing into a clean pair definitely doesn’t appeal,’ said Maguire. ‘Ireland’s Nicolas Roche will ride the Tour de France this weekend and he’s a pretty fashionable guy by all accounts, but I can’t see him wearing Spandex shorts down to the shops anytime soon,’ Maguire said.

The viability of cycling shorts as anything more than sportswear remains to be seen. For many, one of the primary issues with them will be the way they shape the body. McDonald describes their fit as ‘awkwardly provocative,’ something which is undoubtedly a fact.

Lycra cycling shorts don’t hide anything, the accentuate everything. But perhaps this isn’t an issue in an era of ‘self-love’ and body positivity.

‘Back in the day, we used to giggle about cyclists on and off their bikes. Not only did they appear alien in their technical clothing, but they also looked awkwardly provocative, cartoon obscene in their Lycra shapeliness, reflecting a puritanical embarrassment about our bodies,’ said Jet McDonald.

‘We are finally letting go of these preconceptions and owning the public gaze. This can go both ways, bringing undue attention or helping us own our bodies more confidently, in all our wonderful shapes and sizes, hinting at the incredible freedom cycling can give us to escape the boundaries of the past.’

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